The Israeli Watergate

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The Israeli version of Watergate is getting more bizarre -- and more intriguing -- with each passing day. For the second time in a week, burglars broke into the Washington offices of a prominent U.S. pollster advising Ehud Barak, the Labor candidate for prime minister of Israel, and made off with campaign materials. Israeli police now also report that seven break-ins have occurred in Israel at the homes and offices of Barak aides over the past few months. What's up? "There's a feeling that the break-ins are political and that opponents of Barak are behind them," says TIME reporter Eric Silver, "but no one can determine exactly who is responsible."

For the moment the episode has played out in the Israeli press as a curious low-level mystery. "In the absence of evidence, Labor has been careful not to finger Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party," says Silver. The Israeli public has likewise adopted a wait-and-see attitude, though it has become keenly aware that the entire matter could erupt into a major scandal if the culprits are identified. "Israelis are now focused on the Washington police and the FBI to see what they uncover," says Silver. "The Israeli police have not been very aggressive in investigating the break-ins in Israel because nothing was taken in those break-ins." This week's second Washington burglary has ratcheted up the political rhetoric a bit, however. For the first time on Wednesday, notes Silver, "the Likud party has gone on the offensive over the incidents." Apparently teasing the opposition Labor party, Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israeli radio: "I hope that we aren't dealing with political provocations whose intent is to create false accusations."